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Ghosthunter: A Journey through Haunted France

by Simon Marsden
Editions Flammarion, Paris, France,2006
192 pp. Trade, 39,90 euros
ISBN: 2-0803-0530-1.

Reviewed by Allan Graubard
New York, NY


Who can say why certain landscapes, and ruins in those landscapes, move us so deeply? Or why we sometimes enshrine them as part of our cultural heritage, giving to them a value they would not otherwise possess? And why is it that, in recognizing our penchant to value what we no longer live in, whether ruin or not, we find that place renewed but only as it slips away? Is the sensibility of exile so ingrained within us that we cannot do without it; and what of death and its architectural or natural mirrors?

In 10 books of photos and commentary, Simon Marsden has given to us an oeuvre that responds to these, and other, questions. His love of places which we might call haunted or magical, and his virtuosity in capturing them on film, notably infra-red film, roots him to a world of resonance and metaphor.

His most recent book, Ghosthunter: A Journey through Haunted France, is an exceptional offering in this regard. From 7 September to 13 November of a recent year, Marsden visits 56 places throughout the country. In each place he frames an exacting record of a poignant encounter with image and text. From Père Lachasie cemetery in Paris, where he begins, to the Saint Trophime Church in Arles, where he ends, Marsden reveals a landscape that many of us know in part, and some of us might seek to know more of. Along the way there is the Menhir of Guihalon in Brittany, Chastenay Château and the Couhard Pyramid in Burgundy, Apchon Château in Auvergne, Lanquais Château in the Dordogne, Gramont Château in the Pyrenees, and many more.

Rather than illustrating the more confounding or perturbing aspects of a troubling or arcane history associated with a building and its grounds, Marsden steeps his art in the sentient echoes left by that history. His buildings, stones and forests expose a visual language that grows vertiginous. In this wall of the 15th century ephemeral beings struggle and teem; from that eroded medieval tower immobility and distance take on near metaphysical significance. A still moat cannot lull the sense of a perilous plunge into reflection or the silence that consumes it; this "afterward" none can avoid. The statue at Veauce Chateau, a woman drowned in death, seems to pivot between then and now in an unnerving if unseen, yet perfectly felt bow to perpetuity. Even the fountain of Apollo in the gardens of the Palace of Versailles, so much imaged in movies and postcards, presents through Marsden’s eye a sudden aerial quality that infuses the trees that stretch out behind it in twin flanks, and they, too, begin to breathe.

This epiphanic sense of the real, a sense that Marsden quite carefully orchestrates, sustains momentum throughout the book. At their best, his photos and writings balance each other; at moments that balance resolves into his retreat from a place that might overcome him. Fear, as love or hate, are emotions that entangle, and in their grip impulsive acts can confuse or enlighten. Marsden is no stranger to these emotions or their repercussions, and the book bears this out. Ghosthunter is also a personal journey. As Marsden writes in the Introduction: "I spent my childhood in a haunted manor house in a remote area of the English countryside, where my father kept a large library of books and manuscripts on the occult….during long winter evenings he would read us ghost stories as we sat beside the fire. Fate decreed that I was the one who slept in the haunted room; needless to say, this left a lasting impression on me. In fact, I now begin to think that my obsession for photographing haunted sites may be an attempt to exorcise these very genuine adolescent fears of the supernatural."

Simon Marsden continues his fascinating work, a work that compels from what we see a sensibility of how we see and what we live in what we see; the visual world become a sounding board to emotions, thoughts, and memories touched by time, the vivacity of life and the entropy of death.



Updated 1st May 2007

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